116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Elkader Central students working on pheasant growth
By Jacob Jansen, Elkader Central senior
Mar. 10, 2016 3:15 pm
ELKADER - For the past 15 years, Iowans have gradually seen less Ring-necked Pheasants.
A combination of long winters and wet springs have been a major contributions in fewer bird numbers. In addition, as corn prices increase, Iowa has undergone a massive alteration of landscape from grassland to farmland.
With the diminishing habitat and continual severe weather, many Iowans and fellow Midwesterners have grown increasingly concerned for the future of the Ring-necked Pheasant.
Pheasant populations haven't always been low. During the 1960s, Iowa pheasant hunters were consistently harvesting almost 2 million birds per year. Although the harvest numbers have fluctuated throughout the decades, since 2000, harvest numbers have dropped to below 200,000 birds per year.
Terry Haindfield, a northeast Iowa wildlife biologist, has been working for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for 15 years. He conducts roadside pheasant surveys and oversees wildlife across northeast Iowa.
'The pheasant population continues to reach an all-time low,” Haindfield said. 'Two-thousand-and-one was a new record, and then 2011 became an even lower record. The same is true for 2013 being the lowest year ever.”
Many question why the pheasant population has hit a drop off. Hunters often are blamed for the downfall. However, pheasant hunters can only kill roosters (males). Haindfield said.
'Obviously hunters have an impact on the rooster population, but one rooster can breed up to 10 to 15 hens a year,” he said.
Iowa has been plagued with long snowy winters recently, one of the major reasons for the decline. With a white snowy background, pheasants stand out to predators like coyotes, raccoons, hawks, fox and owls. Therefor, it exposes the birds for a longer period. Even after an elongated winter, the pheasant isn't out of the clear. Wet springs also are catastrophic in the declining numbers. Oftentimes, the rain will kill off pheasant broods because newborn chicks do not have the ability to regulate their own temperature until three weeks of age.
Although weather is unpredictable and uncontrollable, humans add a devastating effect to the pheasant. Because corn is at a high demand, a lot of pheasant habitat has disappeared. Land owners have switched to farming the land instead of leaving native grasses.
'Although, weather trumps everything, habitat is the factor humans can have some control over,” Haindfield said. 'Then the quality of the habitat dictates how much you can maximize populations when the weather cooperates,”
In Iowa, since 1990, 2 million acres of pheasant habitat has been converted to farmland. However, just because habitat is low, it doesn't mean the habitat can't come back.
'Pheasant advocates can provide the habitat components that pheasants require to survive and multiply,” Haindfield said. 'These components, include nesting cover, brood rearing cover, predator avoidance cover, adequate food (corn, beans, seeds, and small grains), and good winter cover.”
Five students in Central Community High School's Global Science Class already have started an effort to raise pheasant populations. The group consists of Joe Whittle, Nick Sylvester, Luis Chan, Justin Deshaw, Elijah Hopp, and Simon Koehn. The group is conducting an experiment with trail cameras and finding ways to implement more habitat across Clayton County.
'It's obvious the pheasant population is decreasing,” Sylvester said. 'Even though we love to hunt them, as hunters, we are concerned about their success. We care about wildlife.”
The boys have high hopes for their project and for the pheasants' future.
The 2015 Iowa pheasant report shows promising numbers. In northeast Iowa, a roadside survey in 2015 showed the average of pheasants counted in a 30-mile radius was 7.4. In 2014, the number was as low as 2.4. This trend shows the population has increased, but still is the lowest pheasant density in the state of Iowa.
The past two winters have been milder and springs have been dryer. More importantly, a lot of people are noticing the decrease in habitat and are trying to make a difference, like Central's Global Science Class. These efforts are paying off, according to Haindfield.
'Of course there will be ups and downs, but I predict numbers going up in the next 10 years,” Haindfield. 'If the weather continues to cooperate, good things will come. Also, pheasant habitat in northeast Iowa is especially beginning to increase in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acres and water quality acres.”
Although numbers are low, during the fall months, pheasant hunters still are often seen in road ditches or grasslands. Pheasant hunting has been a generational hobby for many Iowans and even though hunters will walk miles without seeing a bird, the sport remains very popular.